6 Historical Nantucket Museums

Aug 2015

Spending time anywhere but the beach in Nantucket can be hard to justify.  The small island 30 miles from the coast of Cape Cod offers some of the most pristine beaches in the world. When you do mange to tear yourself away from the shoreline however, there is such an abundance of history around each corner of Nantucket’s 14 square miles. You’ll never have a problem finding a rainy day activity. Every turn of the cobblestoned streets offers a glimpse into what life was like during the Island’s golden era as the whaling capital of the world.  I recently had the opportunity to visit the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum. Their new interactive Heroes of the Sea exhibit celebrates the 225th Anniversary of the United States Coast Guard.

Nantucket Lifesaving and Shipwreck Museum

The Museum, an affiliate of the Egan Maritime Institute, shares the fascinating stories of yesterday’s maritime heroes through permanent and changing interpretive exhibits and special events. Housed in a renovated lifesaving station, it is home to more than 5,000 objects surrounding the subject: surfboats, beach carts, vintage photographs, tools, an interactive shipwreck map, and a whimsical Newfoundland dog chair created by Nantucket  artist, Clara Urbahn.

Inside the lifesaving and shipwreck museum

The small museum, a short drive from town is in the area known as Polpis.  The current exhibit features photographs, information and unique artifacts that celebrate the heritage and service of the United States Coast Guard from inception to present day. This year the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum has introduced new interactive activities that will excite and educate museum guests of all ages. Special clues are spotlighted in the museum and guide visitors to search for artifacts inside and outside on the museum grounds. The museum’s expansive lawn also plays host to a new child-size replica surfboat for children to pretend to forge through the stormy seas.  Outdoor activities also include rope climbing to mimic scaling the mast of a ship and taking a ride on the popular breeches buoy swing.

Interactive areas of the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum.

Map of shipwrecks that have taken place off the coast of Nantucket
Treacherous shoals and inclement weather led to over 700 shipwrecks in the surrounding waters of Nantucket, causing the area to be dubbed “a graveyard of the Atlantic.” Red lights indicate the location of the wrecks on the interactive map.

Bouy lifesaving device


Modern day zip lining has nothing on the original lifesaving breeches buoy device. This crude rope based lifesaver was used to extract people from wrecked vessels. The buoy was used from sinking ship to rescue ship or from ship to shore using a rocket or kite system for personal evacuations. Until the use of helicopters, over 177,000 people were saved using this system.

  • Open from Saturday, May 23 through Columbus Day, Monday, October 12, 2015, the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum is located at 158 Polpis Road, just 3.5 miles from Nantucket Town. Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily.  Admission: $10 adults, $5 youth ages 6 – 17, free for children under 6, free for military and their family.  For more information www.eganmaritime.org

Egan Maritime Institute

Coffin School
4 Winter Street

Located at the historic Coffin School, an impressive 1854 Greek Revival-style building in the heart of Nantucket Town, the Egan Maritime Institute is the island’s only non-profit organization devoted exclusively to celebrating Nantucket’s seafaring heritage. The Egan Maritime Institute maintains a collection of fine art, maritime books and artifacts related to the maritime world. The museum is open to the public, but it is primarily a research museum. Make sure to check ahead of time to see the schedule.


Other opportunities to visit historical spots where you can meet the family founders, explore Nantucket’s whaling history, learn the history of the island’s famous lighthouses, or meet one of American’s most fascinating women, Nantucket native Maria Mitchell, astronomer, naturalist, and educator, are found closer to town.

Maria Mitchell Natural Science Museum
4 Vestal Street

The Maria Mitchell Association operates two observatories, a natural science museum, an aquarium, and preserves the historic birthplace of Maria Mitchell. A wide variety of science and history-related programming is offered throughout the year for people of all ages.

Museum of African American History
29 York Street

The Museum of African American History on Nantucket features two historic sites, the African Meeting House and the Florence Higginbotham House. These buildings were at the center of a thriving nineteenth-century African American community on the island. The Museum presents cultural programs and interpretive exhibits on the history of African Americans on Nantucket and offers guided tours of Nantucket’s Black Heritage Trail.

For more information on the Black Heritage Trail, click here!

Nantucket lightship

Another important and unusual part of the nautical history on the island is the Lightships; first commissioned in Massachusetts in 1856. These ships (above) functioned as floating lighthouses, providing light to passing ships in dark waters. With so little to do and so much time on their hands, the lightship crews tried their hands at weaving baskets and achieved great skill. The wooden bases were made on shore and the weaving and assembly took place on the ships. The baskets, which became known as “Lightship Baskets,” for obvious reasons, were widely sought after. Most collectors and historians agree that the finest lightship baskets ever made were those made by lighthouse crews in the late 1800s.

Lightships remained in active service through the early 1900s. However, the government decided that the onboard basket weaving was “moonlighting” and the crews were no longer allowed to make baskets while on ships after 1900. Basket making returned to the island.

Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum
49 Union Street

Lightship baskets are unique to the island of Nantucket. When I first learned about this artisan object, I was flabbergasted to see the prices antique baskets can comand-upwards of $5,000!  The Museum exhibits and documents a wide range of Lightship Baskets from the earliest forms created in the 1850s to present-day creations. This important piece of Nantucket’s historic heritage is well represented here and you’ll find beautiful examples of the craft by talented artists on the island.

Whaling Museum
13 Broad Street

Renovated in 2005, the Nantucket Whaling Museum features a restored 1847 candle factory, world-class exhibits and demonstrations, a fully accessible rooftop observation deck overlooking Nantucket harbor. Most impressive and dramatic is the skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale. This special museum has received accreditation from the American Association of Museums, an prestigious honor bestowed on fewer than one of every twenty-two museums in the country. The excellent gift shop is one of the best you’ll find on the island.


You’d be remiss to leave Nantucket without a taste of the rich maritime history that surrounds every inch of the island. Taking the time to visit one of historical Nantucket museums will enlighten you about about the special island, once known as the whaling capital of the world. As hard as it is to believe, there’s much more to this piece of paradise than just a pretty face!

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  1. Karen Warren says:

    I’ve been wanting to visit Nantucket (and New England generally) for a long time, because the history is so interesting. And these museums seem to be doing a great job with exhibiting the history.

  2. Had no idea Nantucket had 6 museums. Really, the entire old town is a museum. Loved the sterling doorknobs and knockers on the old houses and the cobbled streets.

  3. I used to live in Boston so have been to Nantucket several times but never knew about the Coast Guard Museum. My youngest nephew in the Reserves for the Coast Guard so I’ll tell him about it. He’s the kind of kid who would go there to check it out!

  4. Donna Janke says:

    I think it would to learn some of the maritime history while in Nantucket, a place I haven’t been to yet.

  5. That is interesting that Nantucket has so many museums. They must be especially nice to visit on rainy or cool days.

    • alison says:

      It’s the perfect activity for a rainy day Charles, but shouldn’t be missed if you only have sunshine. All that sun isn’t good for your skin : )

  6. I didn’t realize there were six museums in Nantucket! We hit two of them on a rainy weekend. Hope to return to sunnier days but these are great backups:-)

  7. Nantucket’s history is so fascinating. I’m not surprised that there are this many museums to wander through. I think I’d be most interested in the African American History one first. It’s not something you might expect and that makes it more compelling. I’ll bet you’ve had a wonderful summer on the island.

  8. My sister-in-law has a house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, so we’ve made that trek a number of times, but I’ve never been to Nantucket nor Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve been to Mystic Seaport in CT and to maritime museums in Lisbon, Portugal and Freemantle, Australia, so I’d probably have a good old time visiting the museums on Nantucket and it would be a lot less expensive to get there.